Struggles of the Dollar Van on Flatbush Avenue

Jaspreet Singh Kalra
The Gotham Grind
Published in
3 min readOct 5, 2019
Winston Williams, 59, drives a dollar van on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York City. Photo ©Jaspreet Kalra

Driving down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn in his 2000 Ford E-450 shuttle bus one recent afternoon, Winston Williams spotted a woman near the Barclays Center waving him down. He pulled his shuttle bus up to the sidewalk, opened the door, and let her in. The woman took a seat, and Williams pulled back out into traffic.

Williams was born in Jamaica and came to New York when he was 12. He began driving a commuter van (or “dollar van”) on Flatbush, home to the under-performing B41 bus, in 1995. It was a good business, a way of helping people get to work or run errands faster and more comfortably than on a city bus.

In 2001, Williams acquired a license from the Taxi and Limousine Commission and started his own company, Blackstreet Van Lines, with 3 vans. As Flatbush got busier, business grew. By 2015, Winston had 26 vans under his umbrella. The drivers owned their own vans but the licenses were Williams’s, and he received a cut of their earnings.

But the past few years have been difficult. Increasing competition from unlicensed vans, rocketing insurance costs, and what Williams sees as a harassing enforcement campaign by the police have jeopardized his business. His company is now down to just two vans.

Dollar Vans, like the one operated by Williams, often serve areas with little or unreliable public transport. Photo ©Jaspreet Kalra

Near Empire Boulevard, Williams picked up a woman who identified herself as Diqua. She works as a waitress in Manhattan and has been using these vans for the last 20 years. Diqua said she takes dollar vans because “the bus is too slow and too awful.” Williams runs his van along the same route as the B41; he typically makes the 7-mile drive from Downtown Brooklyn to Kings Plaza in 45 minutes, whereas, according to MTA data, the bus takes twice as long. On this day, as on most others, among the 20 commuters seated in Williams’s van, most were women of color.

Williams’s radio was tuned to 107.5, playing tracks from Lionel Richie and other 80s artists at a low volume. He complained that rising insurance premiums were driving legitimate van operators out of business. Because of liability issues, most companies refuse to take on dollar vans. At the moment, there is only one, Park Insurance. Insurance costs a minimum of $18,000 per year for licensed vans.

There are 20 vans authorized by the TLC to run on Flatbush, but Williams estimates that there are almost ten times that many unlicensed vans operating on Flatbush.

Near King’s Theatre, Williams spotted a dollar van pulled over by the police. “They’re trying to criminalize us,” he said. The police are supposed to monitor and fine unlicensed vans, but, according to Williams, they do not differentiate between the licensed and unlicensed.

“The po-po’s out here terrorizing us,” Williams told a commuter a little while later, explaining why he couldn’t stop at Barclay’s Center. He takes detours on his route when there’s enforcement activity to avoid being stopped and losing commuters to the delay of speaking with the cops.

As Williams made his last stop on the route, he popped his head out the window to speak to another driver. Referring to the police, he said, “This might be my last trip, I can’t take any more of this bullshit.” On the turn at Kings Plaza, many drivers had parked their vans, licensed and unlicensed, and were hoping for rain, so that the police would leave and they could go back to work.